Some 600,000 refugees later, Ottawa digs in on dealing with Myanmar on Rohingya crisis

Ottawa's approach to Myanmar might include expressions of concern, frank phone calls with civilian and military leaders, but not drastic ruptures, ruling out actions such as revoking Aung San Suu Kyi’s honorary Canadian citizenship — at least for now.

Canada's ambassador Karen MacArthur says her visits to troubled state enable talks with all sides

Canadian Ambassador Karen MacArthur, left, meets with Rohingya refugees in Myanmar's Rakhine state on Oct. 2. (Embassy of Canada in Myanmar)

As a growing number of Canadians demanded action on the Rohingya crisis — many calling for Ottawa to revoke the Burmese leader Aung San Suu Kyi's honorary Canadian citizenship — Karen MacArthur was flying over Northern Rakhine state, ground zero for the Rohingya's plight.

Canada's ambassador to Myanmar is one of very few Canadians, or foreigners from anywhere, who have seen that troubled strip of land since the violence and displacement started, prompting many, including the UN and Canada, to describe it as ethnic cleansing.

What MacArthur saw from the partially open door of a Myanmar air force helicopter seemed to support those accusations, she said in a rare interview.

The government-organized trip on Oct. 2 involving 20 diplomats was controversial, but nonetheless the only way to get to the area for a first-hand glimpse at the disturbing pattern etched into the vast fields of green.

"I saw … village after village blackened, destroyed, emptied of people — not a single person, not an animal to be seen from the air," she said on the phone from Myanmar.

This aerial picture taken Sept. 27 shows burnt villages near Maungdaw in Myanmar's northern Rakhine state. (STR/AFP/Getty Images)

"Looking at those blackened strips in the middle of this greenery — this to me is a clear manifestation of what people are talking about when they talk about ethnic cleansing.

"Those people have gone."

Myanmar denies that the violence against Rohingya amounts to anything resembling ethnic cleansing, and organized the visit in light of demands from a number of international actors, including diplomats based in the capital Yangon, for access to Rakhine state.

The diplomats produced a carefully worded statement, calling for the violence to stop. "The security forces have an obligation to protect all people in Rakhine without discrimination," they said.

But the visit generated some controversy back at home and abroad:

  • That it was wrong to travel under the protection of the border guard police, some of the very apparatus accused in the violence against Rohingya.
  • That it was a way for the authorities to continue sidestepping demands to allow a UN fact-finding mission to visit and investigate exactly what happened.
  • That the resulting joint communiqué — without once mentioning the word "Rohingya," which the authorities do not like — was too big a compromise given the grave circumstances.

Canadian Ambassador to Myanmar Karen MacArthur. (Global Affairs)

MacArthur says her visits, including another one to Central Rakhine last week, are ways to assess for herself the tensions on the ground — and, more crucially, speak to representatives from all communities in a country that is outlandishly prickly about foreign interference in its affairs, and where Rohingya are not entitled to citizenship.

That approach is another indication that despite the growing refugee crisis, on Myanmar, Ottawa is still in engagement mode. That might include expressions of concern, frank phone calls with civilian and military leaders, but not drastic ruptures, ruling out actions such as revoking Aung San Suu Kyi's citizenship — at least for now.

All that makes classic diplomacy — and MacArthur's job — more central. With every effort to engage the civilian and military leadership, and the various communities "we have an opportunity to … try to change perceptions and perspectives, and also to try to influence decisions that are taken," she says.

Like many other leaders, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has spoken to Suu Kyi, and Global Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland has spoken to the head of the military.

Rohingya people gather to meet Canadian Ambassador Karen MacArthur in Rakhine state on Oct. 2. (Embassy of Canada in Myanmar)

While there has been no explicit indication of substantive change on the ground, "I do think the concerns of the international community … are understood," says MacArthur.

Ottawa's engagement strategy is also evident in the prime minister's appointment today of Bob Rae as special envoy to Myanmar.

It shows you the extent to which they want to engage with us.- Ambassador Karen MacArthur

The former Ontario premier is expected to seek permission to visit Rakhine state as soon as possible. Perhaps just as important, says one official familiar with the new role, is that Rae's more political position will make it possible to be vocal on Myanmar and on the international stage—without jeopardizing existing relationships MacArthur has on the ground.

Myanmar, at the crossroads of India, China, and South East Asia, is complicated terrain. It is a country still sorting out its transition to democracy, and the power divisions between civilian and military arms of the government.

Among other issues, it has many thorny grievances defined by identity and belonging, of which the Rohingya's is the most acute — by far.

The international community's focus on their plight has caused resentment among others in Myanmar, namely the Buddhist majority.

Thousands of Rohingya refugees fleeing from Myanmar cross a small stream in the hot sun on a muddy rice field on Oct. 16 near Palang Khali, Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh. (Paula Bronstein/Getty Images)

MacArthur chooses her words carefully. She points out that there is fear and distrust in and between all ethnic communities she has visited.

MacArthur, who has been in the post for a year and had been in Rakhine prior to the latest violence, says the diplomats on the Oct. 2 trip stopped at Rohingya villages, and they were able to ask any questions they wanted.

In one, they were overwhelmed by a huge and chaotic turnout. "It shows you the extent to which they want to engage with us," she said.

On her more recent visit to Central Rakhine — which did involve the help of state officials but not the military — MacArthur says she spent time with state officials, Rakhine communities, as well as in one of the squalid camps in which tens of thousands of Rohingya have been sequestered since 2012.

'Wanted to live peacefully'

In all conversations with Rohingiya — whether in a tea shop, a clinic, a camp in which they are sequestered, or in the northern villages — she said the message was consistent:

"That they wanted to live peacefully, and coexist peacefully, where they were," she said. "We know that they want to be able to have freedom of movement, but the main issue that they wanted to convey to us, was that they wanted to stay there."

She says Canada wants to help Myanmar in its democratic transition and to work on the big, longterm issues that affect all communities.

But for the moment, improving lives for Rohingya, especially for those who remain in Myanmar, is the priority: that, she says, includes an end the violence, restoring law and order, and full humanitarian access to Rohingya who depend on foreign aid.

Hers is a fine line to walk. There are people who would like to think this is just an internal problem and doesn't concern the outside world, says MacArthur.

"But the fact is if you have hundreds of thousands of people flowing across an international border … it is an international issue.

"This is one point that I do try to make … [on] why do Canadians care about this.

"To make people understand that it is an international issue and it needs a collective response."


Nahlah Ayed

Host of CBC Ideas

Nahlah Ayed is the host of the nightly CBC Radio program Ideas. A veteran of foreign reportage, she's spent nearly a decade covering major world events from London, and another decade covering upheaval across the Middle East. Ayed was previously a parliamentary reporter for The Canadian Press.